Category Archives: events

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

the-ecstasy-1

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (1647-1652)

St Teresa of Avila was born in Spain on this day, March 28, five hundred years ago. She was a Catholic reformer, Carmelite nun, author, and one of the greatest mystics who ever lived. Because she is a poster child for Counter-Reformation spirituality, most Protestants have either never heard of her or see her as a symbol of all that was wrong with the Roman Church.

Teresa was two years old when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the symbolic beginning of Protestantism. Luther was himself a former monk, who came to reject monasticism, celibacy, and mysticism. Teresa embraced all three and took them to new heights. She was even the co-founder of a strict new religious order called the Discalced Carmelites. One story illustrates both her humility and distance from Protestant spirituality:

Once a young woman of high reputation for virtue asked to be admitted to a convent in Teresa’s charge, and added, as if to emphasize her intellect, “I shall bring my Bible with me.” “What,” exclaimed Teresa, “your Bible? Do not come to us. We are only poor women who know nothing but how to spin and do as we are told.”

Teresa is perhaps most remembered for her mysticism. She was a visionary and her spiritual raptures even caused her to levitate on occasion. Here’s how she described one of her most famous visions:

It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form. . . . In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire.  With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.  When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, or will one’s soul be content with anything less. . . .

But when this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport my soul and to send it into an ecstasy, so that it cannot possibly suffer or have any pain because it immediately begins to experience fruition. May He be blessed forever, Who bestows so many favors on one who so ill requites such great benefits.

Not everything in Teresa’s life was ecstatic bliss. She suffered much both physically and spiritually. She was often opposed by church authorities and nuns who resisted her reforms. Because of her great love for our Lord, she was called simply “Teresa of Jesus.” Happy birthday, St. Teresa!

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The Cost of Discipleship

This morning I read the following news on The Daily Office West website about a tragic shooting that took place at an Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, MD just 30 minutes from my home in Annapolis:

We must begin today with terrible news, which needs the prayers of the entire Church: the shooting on Thursday of the co-rector and parish secretary of St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, Maryland, apparently by a homeless man living nearby in the woods, a regular client of the parish food bank, who became belligerent in recent days and had to be told not to return. The Rev. Mary-Marguerite Kohn was severely injured and is not expected to live. The administrative assistant, Brenda Brewington, was killed at the scene. The shooter then took his own life. Please pray for their souls, the parish and diocese of Maryland – and make a thorough review of security measures at your church, especially for front-line personnel.

This horrible news reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship). May those who died in this tragedy rest in peace.

It’s sad that in the richest nation in the world we have homeless people living in the woods, depending on a food bank for their daily bread. It’s sad that a church living the Gospel by feeding the hungry must suffer a tragic and senseless loss for their generosity. It’s sad that it has been years since I have volunteered at a food bank to help those who don’t have enough to eat. Maybe it’s about time I did.

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Religion, for Better or Worse?

Wilberforce holding the broken chain of slavery, Christ Church, Chelsea.

True religion brings salvation, frees us from the bondage of sin and guilt, and fills us with love for God and our neighbors. False religion damns us and makes us the meanest, most loathsome creatures. You can find both in Christianity. Indeed, you can find both in any church or even in any Christian heart. It amazes me how the same religion that exalts us to heaven can cast us down to the pit of hell. I’ve pondered this contradictory effect of faith for a while and found a new illustration of it in a book I’m currently reading.

The classic memoir Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass is a fascinating first-hand account of American slavery from the perspective of a former slave who became one of the most eloquent and well-known abolitionists. I’m reading this sobering tale in preparation for an important event. Next Saturday, June 18, a statue of Frederick Douglass will be unveiled on the front lawn of the courthouse in Easton, Maryland. (You can read more about the event here.)

After describing a particularly sadistic slave master who was also a devout Christian, Douglass says this:

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, and most cruel and cowardly, of all others.  

Why is that? Atheists would say that all religion is corrosive; it makes good people bad. I think there’s much evidence for this claim but it goes too far. I believe all religion can be corrosive, because all religion can become an excuse for our own sin. A wise man once said, A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice because a surplus of virtue is unchecked by the constraints of conscience.” If you think you’re doing God’s work, you can justify anything, because the ends justify the means. At least that’s how many sinners rationalize their evil behavior.

Religion can also be ennobling. It makes bad people good and good people better. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a minister’s daughter whose faith motivated her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Douglass’s Narrative Life, Stowe’s book raised awareness of the horrible realities of slavery and the need to abolish that terrible institution. John Newton grew up without the benefit of a Christian home and worked as a sailor and slave trader. As an adult he had a powerful religious conversion. He quit slave trading and studied theology. After he became a minister of the Gospel, he wrote one of the most well-known and beautiful hymns in the English language: Amazing Grace, which celebrates God’s power to save “a wretch” like himself.   

What makes the difference between good and bad religion? Why do some people use faith as an excuse to do evil and others as a motive for good? Why do all of us sometimes  use our faith positively and other times negatively? How can the same religion that makes us more like Jesus become an excuse for acting like the devil? I’m not sure I have all the right answers to these questions but they fascinate me.   

Perhaps it’s because the Evil One infiltrates the church with counterfeit Christians, sowing tares among the wheat (Mat. 13:24-30). These pseudo-believers are the ones who do evil in the name of Christ. Still, even without the devil’s influence there’s great potential for self-deception. People might think they’re saved when they’re not. On the other hand, even true Christians are capable of immoral behavior. All believers have two natures: the sin nature they’re born with and the new nature they get when they’re born again. We choose which one to follow and sometimes make the wrong choice, yielding to sinful desires rather than walking in the Spirit.  

When we see others doing evil, we can use it as an opportunity for reflection. Rather than looking for the mote in our brother’s eye, we should deal with the beam in our own (Mat. 7:3-5).

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Peter J. Gomes

(1942-2011)

The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes died yesterday. He was the longtime minister at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. His bestselling books like The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus and The Good Book have informed and inspired many, including me. 

Requiescat in pace.

You can read my previous musings about one of Gomes’ books here.

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Anniversary!

I was so busy working on my last post, Snapshots, I almost forgot that my blog turns one year old today. It would be amiss if I didn’t do something in honor of this happy occasion. Let me begin by saying thank you to all of you who read my blog. I am honored and humbled that you want to know what I think, especially about matters of faith.

I started Salty Bread because a year ago I found myself no longer in a preaching or teaching role and felt the need for a creative outlet and a place to work though some ideas about matters of ultimate importance. I had become an avid reader of a fellow preacher’s blog, which gave me the inspiration. So with the encouragement of some of my coworkers where I used to work I started posting my musings online. One of the biggest rewards of blogging has been reconnecting with old friends and making some new ones.

Here are some milestones, both personal and blog related, from the past year:

  • First post written specifically for this blog was actually my second post, “Six Flags Over Jesus”—appropriate to read during the holiday season
  • Moved my blog to WordPress and updated the blog’s appearance (thank you, Natalie)
  • Moved from Washington, DC area to Annapolis, MD to begin a new teaching job
  • Post that was the most cathartic to write was “Where was God?
  • Most fun to write was “Lexically Discombobulated
  • Saddest was “In Memoriam
  • Post I decided not to publish, then accidentally published, then removed it was “Pastor Julie” (email me an I might send you a copy)

Please leave a comment and let me know if you had a favorite post over the past year. I’d love to hear from you!

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Joy and Sorrow

Go Navy! Beat Army! This weekend is the Army-Navy football game, one of the greatest rivalries in college football. If Navy wins there will be much celebrating in Annapolis. There aren’t many places in our culture outside of sports where it’s considered socially acceptable to sing and shout and revel. When was the last time you cut loose and celebrated loudly, vocally, publicly? Honestly, I can’t remember. And yet that’s what the prophet Zephaniah told the citizens of Jerusalem to do in Zeph. 3:14-20. Although Zephaniah was a prophet of doom and gloom who preached about the coming wrath of God, the book of his prophecy ends with an exhortation to be joyful: Sing! Shout! Rejoice!

Why celebrate? The prophet mentions two things God has already done for Jerusalem, one thing he is doing, and many things he will do in the future. God delivered his people spiritually and politically, despite their corrupt ways (3:1-7). He removed their judgment, wiping the slate clean, and turned their enemies away (15).

Not only had God removed their sins and turned back their enemies, but he says, “the LORD, the king of Israel is with you” (15). Now as then, God’s presence in our lives is a cause for rejoicing. The rest of the passage looks forward and tells what God will do for his people “on that day” (16). This dual focus on what God has already done and what he will do for his people makes this text so fitting for Advent, which is about both the incarnation and second coming. Our joy comes from both the assurance of what God has done and the promise of what he will do. We don’t have to wait for God to right every wrong and heal every hurt before we praise him. And we don’t have to see all of the prophecies fulfilled for us to have hope.

I can’t say I’m in the habit of exuberant celebration, even at this happy time of year. But it’s not just me. Apparently God’s people in Jerusalem needed to be reminded by Zephaniah to rejoice as well. That’s easier said than done when times are tough. My mother-in-law is battling cancer. My friend is separated and headed for divorce. My cousin is unemployed. How do you celebrate and rejoice under such difficult circumstances? It isn’t easy. I don’t expect the Midshipmen to come back upbeat if Navy doesn’t win. (They will win.) Most of us aren’t capable of celebrating during times of loss.

If simultaneous joy and sorrow just isn’t something we are able to manage, then at least we have the hope that they can be sequential. “Weeping may endure for a night,” the psalmist says, “but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

If you’re going through a dark night, just hold on. It will soon be morning.

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